Say, shall these things be forgotten
In the Row that men call Rotten,
Beauty Clare?–Hamilton Aide.
‘History,’ it has been said, ‘does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.’ Now, there are still some periods with which no historian has grappled, and, strangely enough, the period that most greatly fascinates me is one of them. The labour I set myself is therefore rather Herculean. But it is also, for me, so far a labour of love that I can quite forget or even revel in its great difficulty. I would love to have lived in those bygone days, when first society was inducted into the mysteries of art and, not losing yet its old and elegant tenue, babbled of blue china and white lilies, of the painter Rossetti and the poet Swinburne. It would be a splendid thing to have seen the tableaux at Cromwell House or to have made my way through the Fancy Fair and bartered all for a cigarette from a shepherdess; to have walked in the Park, straining my eyes for a glimpse of the Jersey Lily; danced the livelong afternoon to the strains of the Manola Valse; clapped holes in my gloves for Connie Gilchrist.
It is a pity that the historians have held back so long. For this period is now so remote from us that much in it is nearly impossible to understand, more than a little must be left in the mists of antiquity that involve it. The memoirs of the day are, indeed, many, but not exactly illuminative. From such writers as Frith, Montague Williams or the Bancrofts, you may gain but little peculiar knowledge. That quaint old chronicler, Lucy, dilates amusingly enough upon the frown of Sir Richard (afterwards Lord) Cross or the tea-rose in the Prime Minister’s button-hole. But what can he tell us of the negotiations that led Gladstone back to public life or of the secret councils of the Fourth Party, whereby Sir Stafford was gradually eclipsed? Good memoirs must ever be the cumulation of gossip. Gossip (alas!) has been killed by the Press. In the tavern or the barber’s-shop, all secrets passed into every ear. From newspapers how little can be culled! Manifestations are there made manifest to us and we are taught, with tedious iteration, the things we knew, and need not have known, before. In my research, I have had only such poor guides as Punch, or the London Charivari and The Queen, the Lady’s Newspaper. Excavation, which in the East has been productive of rich material for the archaeologist, was indeed suggested to me. I was told that, just before Cleopatra’s Needle was set upon the Embankment, an iron box, containing a photograph of Mrs. Langtry, some current coins and other trifles of the time, was dropped into the foundation. I am sure much might be done with a spade, here and there, in the neighbourhood of old Cromwell House. Accursed be the obduracy of vestries! Be not I, but they, blamed for any error, obscurity or omission in my brief excursus.
The period of 1880 and of the two successive years should ever be memorable, for it marks a great change in the constitution of English society. It would seem that, under the quiet regime of the Tory Cabinet, the upper ten thousand (as they were quaintly called in those days,) had taken a somewhat more frigid tone. The Prince of Wales had inclined to be restful after the revels of his youth. The prolonged seclusion of Queen Victoria, who was then engaged upon that superb work of introspection and self-analysis, More Leaves from the Highlands, had begun to tell upon the social system. Balls and other festivities, both at Court and in the houses of the nobles, were notably fewer. The vogue of the Opera was passing. Even in the top of the season, Rotten Row, I read, was not impenetrably crowded. But in 1880 came the tragic fall of Disraeli and the triumph of the Whigs. How great a change came then upon Westminster must be known to any one who has studied the annals of Gladstones incomparable Parliament. Gladstone himself, with a monstrous majority behind him, revelling in the old splendour of speech that not seventy summers nor six years’ sulking had made less; Parnell, deadly, mysterious, with his crew of wordy peasants that were to set all Saxon things at naught–the activity of these two men alone would have made this Parliament supremely stimulating throughout the land. What of young Randolph Churchill, who, despite his halting speech, foppish mien and rather coarse fibre of mind, was yet the greatest Parliamentarian of his day? What of Justin Huntly McCarthy, under his puerile mask a most dark, most dangerous conspirator, who, lightly swinging the sacred lamp of burlesque, irradiated with fearful clarity the wrath and sorrow of Ireland? What of Blocker Warton? What of the eloquent atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, pleading at the Bar, striding past the furious Tories to the very Mace, hustled down the stone steps with the broadcloth torn in ribands from his back? Surely such scenes will never more be witnessed at St. Stephen’s. Imagine the existence of God being made a party question! No wonder that at a time of such turbulence fine society also should have shown the primordia of a great change. It was felt that the aristocracy could not live by good-breeding alone. The old delights seemed vapid, waxen. Something vivid was desired. And so the sphere of fashion converged with the sphere of art, and revolution was the result.